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Stephen A. Mahin
In Memoriam

Stephen A. Mahin

Byron L. and Elvira E. Nishkian Professor of Structural Engineering, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
Professor Stephen Allan Mahin was a visionary researcher and teacher in structural and earthquake engineering. He was at the height of an extraordinarily active and creative career at the time of his death on February 10, 2018.

Steve was born in Lodi, California, and attended school in Pacific Grove, California. He began undergraduate studies in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, earning his B.S. (honors, 1968), M.S. (1970), and Ph.D. (1974). He worked as an assistant research engineer at UC Berkeley from 1974 to 1977, then joined the faculty as assistant professor in 1977. Over his Berkeley career, he served as chair of the Structural Engineering, Mechanics, and Materials (SEMM) Program (1990-1993), director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center (2009-2015), and, since 2016, was founding director of the Computational Modeling and Simulation Center (SimCenter). 

Mahin recalled how his parents were general contractors and that, while still a high school student, he had designed over a dozen residential and commercial buildings for them. He also worked as a carpenter. He arrived for undergraduate school at Berkeley with the ambition of becoming an architectural engineer, but that soon changed as he became more involved in the technical aspects of engineering. During his doctoral studies he turned his attention to earthquake engineering, including experimental and analytical investigation of mechanical characteristics of reinforced concrete members and development of digital computer programs to simulate nonlinear response to earthquake motions. He also participated in field studies of the 1971 San Fernando earthquake and the 1972 Managua, Nicaragua earthquake, sparking a lifelong pursuit of firsthand learning from earthquake reconnaissance.

Mahin became a world-renowned expert in earthquake engineering with wide-ranging teaching, research, and professional practice contributions. He had broad interests in understanding and improving the performance of structural systems subjected to extreme loadings. He pioneered the development of hybrid simulation theories and methods that integrated large-scale physical tests with high performance computer simulations, thereby enabling study of complete structural systems under realistic loading conditions. He recognized the value of seismic isolation and other protective systems to enhance performance and reduce construction costs and worked extensively with graduate students and practicing engineers to conceive, develop, and implement a range of practical systems. He contributed to the early development of performance-based earthquake engineering and then implemented it as a simulation tool to explore the seismic resilience of the built environment. One year prior to his untimely death he delivered the keynote lecture of the World Conference on Earthquake Engineering, entitled “Resilience by Design: A Structural Engineering Perspective,” which reflected his unique perspective on the role of earthquake researchers and professionals in creating a more resilient and sustainable world.

Mahin worked tirelessly to provide leadership in national and international research programs to advance the field of earthquake engineering. He served as president of the California Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering, vice-president of the Association for Steel-Concrete Composite Structures, and chair of the Northridge Earthquake Engineering Research Coordination Program of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program. When unexpected failures occurred in steel buildings during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, he was the creative force behind a major research program to develop nationally adopted provisions for improved building safety.

He had a deep interest and unique talent to interact and make friends with fellow researchers throughout the world. Many international research collaborations with colleagues in Asia including China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, among others, were initiated and nurtured by his leadership. Over three decades he enlightened and guided multiple phases of the U.S.-Japan cooperative research collaboration on earthquake engineering. Many researchers who worked with him on these and other programs recall his generosity in sharing creative ideas and especially for providing opportunities to young researchers.

Professor Mahin was awarded the Walter Huber Civil Engineering Research Prize and the Norman Medal by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); the Helmut Krawinkler Award by the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California; the 2017 Individual Award for Leadership, Innovation and Outstanding Accomplishments in Earthquake Risk Reduction by the Northern California Chapter of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute; the Special Educator Achievement Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Steel Construction; the Master Academician title from Tongji University of Shanghai; and was inducted into the ASCE Offshore Technology Conference Hall of Fame.

During his over five-decades-long association with Berkeley, Professor Mahin was an engaging mentor of generations of students, postdoctoral fellows, research associates, colleagues, and practicing engineers. His students recall that he taught them to see problems with 10 solutions instead of one, to always think outside the box, and to never shrink from sharing new and thought-provoking ideas. A meeting or casual encounter with him could generate ideas leading to decades of research. National and international travel to engage the broad earthquake community were a regular part of graduate student training with Professor Mahin.

Steve had a passion for spirited automobile driving, starting with his first car, a pale pink 1956 Thunderbird, and culminating with race car driver performance training. In his later years he also became an avid bicyclist spending spare weekends cycling around northern California.  

He is survived by two sons, Jeff and Colin, both of whom had a special place in Steve’s life and heart.

Jack P. Moehle
Filip C. Filippou
Sanjay Govindjee
Paulo J. M. Monteiro
Claudia P. Ostertag